“We’re right in the ‘middle of everywhere,’” says T.J. Olson of his spacious steakhouse, which includes a full bar and ballroom. A visit to Round the Bend, located in the middle of a vast cornfield in Ashland, Nebraska, overlooking the Platte River Valley, is much more than just a quick bite—it’s an experience.
“We’re 20 minutes from Lincoln and Omaha,” Olson says. “And once you get here, [pre-COVID-19] you’ve usually got an hour and a half wait plus an hour or so to eat dinner, hang out and talk. When you come to Round the Bend on the weekends, it’s a real evening out.”
For his cooking, Olson abides by the KISS method: “Keep it simple, stupid—that’s my motto. We’re based in a farming community, so the people are very blue-collar, very hard-working,” Olson says. “They want to come in, have a beer and a good steak, and talk about their day.”
The simplicity and quality of Olson’s food also attracts the more sophisticated clientele from Lincoln and Omaha. “We don’t cover our steaks in gravies or fancy cheeses. We hand-cut everything in-house; all our steaks are 100% Certified Angus Beef, minimum 30 days wet-aged—all sourced through Sysco. Nothing but a touch of seasoning when we grill them on the open-flame charbroiler. We also do a lot of homemade specials, and our hamburgers are made of ground-beef trimmings from our steaks.”
In mid-2012, T.J. and Tifini bought the restaurant from T.J.’s father Ron, who had owned it since 1995, and had their first baby.
“Izzy was born 13 weeks premature and spent two months in the NICU with my wife. I ran the restaurant alone for two months. Everything got turned on its head,” says Olson. “But one thing that was so helpful—Sysco came in and gave us guidance. I didn’t go to business school or college. They helped us with everything from reengineering the menu to making sure we’re operating at 40% cost of goods. They know when the meat market’s going to shift, so we do a deal where we order 70 cases of sirloin and 40 cases of rib-eye, put it in their locker and they slot it for Round the Bend. That’s an incredible service.
“Over the years we’ve had three different reps: Red Meyer, Jeremy Stoecker and now Jason Moore. Their hard work is just incredible. I would refer to all of them as friends.”
“It’s not business, it’s a relationship,” says Olson. “For them to reach out and say, ‘Hey, Round the Bend, we value you, we see you, you guys are doing a good thing. We want to be there for you. How do we make this work even better?’”
Sysco has also been a key partner for the restaurant during the pandemic, as T.J. and Tifini had to make several pivots to accommodate the sudden changes in dining regulations.
After the initial shutdown, “we actually moved our dining room into the ballroom, which has worked out great,” says Olson. “That room can hold 600 people, and my dining room only seats 180, so we’ve been able to operate at [our previous] full capacity through all of COVID-19.”
In addition, with the help of Sysco, Round the Bend began selling to-go bundles of premium raw steaks. “We just sold out of our ‘mega-meat bundles.’ We put a ton of meat in a bundle and prepackage it for 99 bucks. We just sold out of all 300 of them, and everybody’s picking them up this week,” Olson says. “Without Sysco’s buying power and their ability to purchase and house that much meat for us and not charge us for that until we get it in our doors, we would never have been able to make those work.”
T.J. has also become an unlikely convert to Facebook Live. “I’ve disliked Facebook for years. I never wanted it. But we realized quickly that it’s the only way we could communicate with our customers on a daily basis,” he says. “So we created this persona for me—based on the President’s daily press conferences—with me as a president and CEO character, and my executive chef became my ‘Secretary of Steak.’”
T.J. is converting part of the bar area into a boutique meat market called Bella Meat Market. “This will be all Certified Angus Beef, again, facilitated by our relationship with Sysco. It’s a way for people to comfortably and confidently buy the highest quality meats, either in person or online at BellaMeats.com.” They will also be delivering to locations in the Lincoln and Omaha areas.